If you feel bad about how many times you've tried to start a healthy new habit and failed, Wharton's Katy Milkman has a statistic that's likely to cheer you up.

"People who have a heart attack and are given drugs that will prevent a second heart attack with an extremely high probability, the rate at which they're taking their drugs six months after this life-altering heart attack, which you think would really scare the heck out of you, is 50 percent," she explains. Behavior change is hard. Really hard.

Your laziness about working out or reluctance to eat healthier isn't just an individual issue either. Forty percent of premature deaths in the U.S. are the result of some unhealthy behavior. Bad diet and lack of exercise alone kill 400,000 Americans a year. Taken together these statistics show behavioral change isn't just one of the hardest problems in the social sciences, but one of the biggest, as well. 

That's why Milkman and her Wharton colleague Angela Duckworth (best known for her work on grit) have assembled a dream team of no fewer than 47 top academics, with backgrounds ranging from medicine to economics to management (including recent Nobel laureate Richard Thaler), to try to crack it. Milkman recently explained the massive undertaking to Inc.com. 

A huge problem demands a huge study.

To figure out the best ways to fix such a huge problem, you need a truly huge amount of data. Milkman and her colleagues have figured out an ingenious way to get it -- by partnering with one of the nation's largest gym chains, 24-Hour Fitness. Starting in late April, the scientists behind the study reached out to the gym's approximately four million members, urging them to sign up for a new "StepUp" fitness program that will use incentives (specifically Amazon gift cards), information, text messages and other nudges over a 28-day period to get them to make gym-going a regular habit. They're hoping to get at least 200,000 members on board.

To the individual user, StepUp will look like one carefully designed program, but behind the scenes it's actually much more than. In fact, there are not one or two different tactics to change behavior being tested but 57, which were crowdsourced from the multidisciplinary team behind the study. They cover a broad range of interventions, from monetary rewards after a missed gym visit, to instructional videos on motivational skills, to sharing information on how much other people are exercising.

Over the course of a year, the scientists will follow up with members to see which interventions move the needle the most to get people exercising long-term. While Milkman acknowledges that completely overcoming the human impulse to eat Cheetos on the couch is beyond the reach of even the best designed study, she is optimistic that this ambitious undertaking will find interventions that can save a great many lives (or, at a bare minimum, help you fit into those old pants again or save more for retirement).

"I think we're going to need to do studies like this for decades before we can cut physical inactivity in half," she cautions, "but if we can get people to go to the gym 20 percent more, that would be a huge deal, and I think that's within reach." Even this modest success would save tens of thousands of lives a year. ​

What scientists already know works.

All of which might have you saying, fascinating, can't wait to hear the results, but this study doesn't really have anything to teach me about giving up smoking or studying harder yet, does it? While the findings of this project won't be out for awhile, Milkman says science already has learned quite a bit about how to give yourself a better shot of ending an unhelpful behavior. So as you await the results, she suggests a few things to try now:

  • Don't be afraid of starting. With all the grim statistics about how many new habits fail, people are sometimes discouraged before they start, Milkman notes. Don't be. "You can't hit a home run if you don't swing," she says.

  • Ride your enthusiasm. Sometimes you feel a burst of determination to get your life in order. Will that fade? Of course, but if you ride that wave to get started, research shows it will help you keep going even after your initial enthusiasm fades. "Push yourself really hard initially because if you can get going, you can get some sustenance from that," she says. "Even if you know next month you're going to be traveling a lot, try really hard this month."

  • Make it social. Maybe it's a friend, maybe it's a personal trainer, but if you really want to change your habits, find someone who will be disappointed if you don't show up and do that when you say you will. "Accountability matters," Milkman stresses.

  • Set clear goals. Be concrete about your goals, and as specific as you can be about when, where, and how you'll be pursuing your new habit.

We'll keep you posted on the study's findings. In the meantime, if you're looking for more information on the current state of the science of behavior change, check out this Scientific American article from Milkman and Duckworth. And if you're a 24-Hour Fitness member, sign up to help science (and your health) by giving StepUp a try here.

Published on: May 14, 2018